Opinion: Second Look Sentencing – Smart, Fiscally-Responsible, and Evidence-Based Criminal Justice Reform


First published July 9 2023 Michigan Lifer’s Report Newsletter June 2023 Issue

In recent weeks, there has been a surge of misleading narratives surrounding Second Look Sentencing (SLS) legislation that has gripped public discourse. It is disheartening to witness the spread of misinformation and the creation of false narratives that distort the true intentions and impact of this legislation. This politically-motivated fear mongering is merely designed to inflame and divide. In this opinion piece, I aim to shed light on the facts, dispel the falsehoods, and encourage a more nuanced and informed discussion.

SLS is smart, fiscally-responsible, evidence-based legislation that factors in public safety. SLS creates a re-sentencing mechanism based on merit and is extended to individuals who have demonstrated change according to specific guidelines that are reviewed and decided by a judge. This law, if adopted, would provide an opportunity to adjust and implement more appropriately measured sentences to deserving, rehabilitated citizens.

Over the last 30 years, Michigan has taken a punishment focused approach to the harms present in our communities. Rather than address the root causes of violence, the State of Michigan has collectively decided that mass incarceration and extreme punishment are the answers. Three decades later we know that these “solutions” actually create worse outcomes, and we live with the great fiscal and human cost.

According to The Sentencing Project, Michigan now ranks fourth in the U.S. for the number of women serving life without parole (LWOP) with 170-plus imprisoned (see also Michigan Department of Corrections 2021 Statistical Report, p. C-63, for the number of women imprisoned). Also, as reported by Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Michigan has now “become a global outlier, with one of the biggest population of people serving [juvenile] LWOP in the U.S.” (Ban life without parole for juveniles, The Detroit News, p. 2C, June 22, 2023).

Unfortunately, Michigan, along with California, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, imprison “[h]alf of the national population of people serving LWOP . . .”, according to Ashley Nellis in The Sentencing Project’s June 2022 Report, Nothing But Time: Elderly Americans Serving Life Without Parole (p. 4). Nellis further reports, 58 percent of people serving LWOP in Michigan are 50 and older and 86 percent of the elderly LWOP population have served 20 years or more (Table 1, p. 5; Table 2, p. 7). With such an aging lifer population, cost to house them will significantly rise, fiscally straining the Michigan Department of Corrections’ budget, and requiring an increase of funds to be allocated in years to come.

In addition, Michigan’s punishment focused approach has disproportionately impacted the poor and people of color. People of color, who identify themselves as non-white, make-up 54.4 percent of Michigan’s prison population (Michigan Department of Corrections 2021 Statistical Report, p. C-71-C-74), while only representing 26 percent of the state population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts Michigan (retrieved from www.census.gov, access date July 9, 2023). Disproportionately locking up people of color and the poor decimates minority families and communities of low economic status and perpetuates the cycle of crime and mass incarceration.

Michigan needs to radically address the root causes of violence and harms in our communities: addressing root causes of violence and harm is a more effective and lasting way to end those cycles in our communities. Tax-payer’s dollars wasted on long sentences that don’t deter crime could be better invested in our communities through community policing and crime prevention, quality education and job training programs, mental health and substance misuse treatment, quality housing, and more.

Locking people away in prison for a long time does not stop violence in our communities or deter crime. According to a Department of Justice fact sheet, “prison sentences (particularly long sentences) are unlikely to deter future crime,” and “Laws and policies designed to deter crime by focusing mainly on increasing the severity of punishment are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes.”

SLS proclaims I want something better for Michigan. Scientific research shows us that people change. They mature. They age out of criminality and grow out of the mistakes of youth that lead many people to prison. They cultivate new tools for dealing with conflict, even while living in an often violent place, prison. The majority of people serving life and long sentences are statistically proven to not be a threat to public safety. Rather, these same people will either be elderly neighbors dedicated to growing old in peace, or these individuals can serve as positive influences whose lived experience can guide our communities in a better and more peaceful direction.

In Michigan, our prisons are designed to warehouse and control people. There is virtually no state-run programming for people unless they are within two years of their release dates, leaving incarcerated individuals who better themselves without guidance, which they succeed admirably considering these factors. They participate in volunteer-run programs and enroll in college education programs when possible. Experience with long-serving people has shown us that these persons are self-educated, creative, productive, and accountable people.

Passing SLS in Michigan is good for public safety, it is smart, fiscally-responsible, and evidence-based criminal justice reform moving Michigan beyond the punishment focused approach. One would imagine all law makers regardless of which side of the aisle they sit would support such reform. Now is not the time to play party politics.

Jamie Meade and a dog

Jamie Meade is the National Board vice-chairperson of the National Lifers of America, Inc. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at the Chicago Theological Seminary and is a Member in Discernment with the United Church of Christ Michigan Conference Covenant Association. Jamie holds a bachelors in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in criminal justice and legal studies from Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado.


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